Book Review: The Toy Thief by D.W. Gillespie

The Toy Thief by D.W. Gillespie

The Blurb:

As a girl, Jack lives with her father and brother after her mother passed away during childbirth. Her father is a well-meaning construction worker who treats her more like a roommate, while her brother, Andy, is an introverted loner prone to violent outbursts, a virtual mirror to his sister who is outspoken to an extreme. The story opens on a sleepover with nine year old Jack and her close friend. While putting on a pretend show, the two girls leave a video camera running, and when Jack replays the tape the next day, she sees her friend’s toy being snatched off the end table and out the back door by a swift, nearly unseen hand. Excited and bewildered, she tries to show the tape to her thirteen year old brother, Andy who is still furious about the spat he and Jack got into the night before. Without another word, he smashes the tape of the intruder. That night, determined to catch the creature she now calls The Toy Thief, Jack sets up a series of traps, all of which fail miserably. Once she awakens in the middle of the night, she finds her friend’s toy has returned, brought back by The Toy Thief, an impossibly tall and rat-like creature with glassy eyes. Just then, Andy steps out of his room, and as The Thief flees in a panic, Andy realizes his sister is telling the truth. The two of them are able to surmise that The Thief most likely travels through a tangled section of woods called The Trails, and they go out in search of it. After returning unsuccessful, Jack awakes the next morning to find Andy missing from his bedroom. As her father informs the police, Jack knows it’s up to her to find him. Jack must venture into the dark place WHERE TOYS GO to get him back. But even if she finds him, will he ever be the same? FLAME TREE PRESS is the new fiction imprint of Flame Tree Publishing. Launching in 2018 the list brings together brilliant new authors and the more established; the award winners, and exciting, original voices.

This was a fantastic horror offering! Gillespie combines those universal childhood fears of the disappearance of something beloved and the thing under the bed to give us a story that resonates viscerally with the reader.

In terms of story and plot, The Toy Thief reminds me strongly of an early Stephen King short story (Some of his best work, in my opinion) given guts and sinew pulled over the bones to form a full-length story.

Maintaining the creep factor is incredibly hard over a few hundred pages. And while there are a few spots where the story lags, in general the pacing is strong and consistent. Gillespie is also a dab hand at creating fantastic mental imagery with his writing. The weirdness and wrongness of the toy thief shine through, as does the quiet disfunction of Jack’s family.

This is a well-written, well-plotted, and original horror story. Fans of the genre will enjoy this new entry!

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Dracul by Dacre Stoker and J.D. Barker

Dracul by Dacre Stoker and J.D. Barker

The Blurb:

The prequel to Dracula, inspired by notes and texts left behind by the author of the classic novel, Dracul is a riveting novel of gothic suspense that reveals not only Dracula’s true origins but Bram Stoker’s — and the tale of the enigmatic woman who connects them.

It is 1868, and a twenty-one-year-old Bram Stoker waits in a desolate tower to face an indescribable evil. Armed only with crucifixes, holy water, and a rifle, he prays to survive a single night, the longest of his life. Desperate to record what he has witnessed, Bram scribbles down the events that led him here…

A sickly child, Bram spent his early days bedridden in his parents’ Dublin home, tended to by his caretaker, a young woman named Ellen Crone. When a string of strange deaths occur in a nearby town, Bram and his sister Matilda detect a pattern of bizarre behavior by Ellen — a mystery that deepens chillingly until Ellen vanishes suddenly from their lives. Years later, Matilda returns from studying in Paris to tell Bram the news that she has seen Ellen — and that the nightmare they’ve thought long ended is only beginning.

A Dracula prequel written by a descendant of Bram Stoker?! Sign me up! Unfortunately, I had a great deal of trouble getting into the book, so much so that I nearly gave it up a few times. Why? A few factors. The first is my fault. I saw Dracula and the author and dove in without reading farther. I was therefore a bit disappointed to learn that the story didn’t deal with the Count’s story so much as it did Stoker’s. Second, the book takes quite a while to find its feet and engage the reader. The plot seems to drag along for the first few hundred pages. At 500+ pages, there’s plenty of time for the story to figure itself out, but man…that beginning is rough.

Now I will say, that once the plot begins to pick up, the book is fantastic. Stoker and Barker do a wonderful job keeping to Bram Stoker’s style and maintain a high level of gothic creepiness. Moreover, they have used historically verifiable aspects of Bram Stoker’s life to add realism to the plot. The imagery of the book is also simply fantastic. Bits and pieces strongly reminded me of elements from MR James’ classic ghost stories.

So in sum, I wound up liking this book far more by the end of it than I thought I would. Fans of Stoker’s Dracula and gothic horror in general may want to give it a go…the ending is worth the slog. More casual readers, however, may want to give this one a pass.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Mapping the Interior by Stephen Graham Jones

Mapping the Interior by Stephen Graham Jones

Mapping the Interior is a horror novella that wraps itself around your heart and brain while remaining incredibly hard to define. I originally got this book as part of a Nocturnal Reader’s Box, and am so glad that I got the chance to read it. The story focuses on Junior, a twelve year old boy who’s mother has moved the family off the reservation after his father’s death in order to keep them safe. One night after sleepwalking, Junior sees his father…his dead father…walk through the house. As he tries to figure out what is going on and why his father is back, Junior’s younger brother, Dino’s health declines more and more. The story spins us through science and superstition, and the natures of poverty and family.

This is really an incredible book. Jones has given us a wonderful main character in Junior. Watching him trying to reason through his father’s return, and dealing with what follows is both terrifying and moving.

Like all great stories, this one sticks with you after it’s finished. I’m having a very hard time explaining why this story affected me the way it did…so consider this my strong recommendation that you read it for yourself!

Book Review: Indian Summer by Rick Hautala

Indian Summer by Rick Hautala

An Indian Summer has a small town Maine town making full use of the gloriously warm days before the chill of autumn sets in for good. Billy Crowell and his friends are playing home run derby at the local park and pretending their middle school is out for the summer when the town fire alarm sounds; a forest fire has broken out nearby. Trying to get a better look at the fire, Billy finds himself roped into helping keep the flames back. But as he makes his way along the fire line, he becomes lost, and the woods he’s known all his life are suddenly unfamiliar, dark, and threatening. After stumbling upon the bloody, ravaged corpse of a deer, it soon becomes clear that something terrifying lives in these woods…something edging closer and closer.

This is a great little horror novella that emulates Stephen King’s style more than a little. We have an idyllic small town, the fuzzy warmth of times gone by, and a young protagonist who must face a terrifying evil that lives under the idyllic surface. Most of the adults in the story seem to know that something is wrong, but without understanding or appreciating the depths of the darkness in their midst.

My biggest complaint about this story is that I felt there could have been more. I love a good scary short story, and I’m really coming to love the novella length tales, like Widow’s Point by Richard Chizmar. Most of the time, shorter is better; it allows a maximum of horror with none of the detritus that can take away from the terror. But here, I felt there was room enough for a novel-length book. I’d love more back story, more local lore I’d love more time with the strange and mysterious Ellie. I want the creeping terror that Joe Citro gave us in Shadow Child. I guess if the worst thing I can say about a book is that I wish there was more of it, that’s pretty good.

Book Review: Welcome to Romero Park by Amber Michelle Cook

Welcome to Romero Park by Amber Michelle Cook

Romero Park is the ancestral home of Edward Dorchester, your classic haughty-yet-troubled gothic noble. It is harvest time, and Dorchester is planning a ball to celebrate the announcement of his engagement. But as the local gentry descend upon the manor, and the servants scramble to get everything in order, a fell moon rises on the proceedings, and a mysterious corruption is slowly working its insidious way through the manor house and grounds.

I wasn’t sure what I was in for when I started this book. Let’s face it, the zombie thing is on the decline, and classic-literature-plus-undead is hard to do right. Fortunately, Cook does a fantastic job with Romero Park, giving us both zombie mayhem and Victorian correctness in one package. The book uses the bones of Jane Eyre, and drapes it in rotting flesh and gnashing teeth. The story moves from person to person, flirting with the Brönte plot we know and love, but veering away into wholly original (and very entertaining) territory.

My original beef with the book is that it was largely build-up with little climax. Now that I know the book is the first in a planned trilogy, I can understand the reasons for the pacing. Cook slowly builds up the terror in store, letting us see glimpses of a future calamity, and setting us upon several red herrings. It also lets me appreciate the time the author takes with each of her characters, letting them live and breathe a bit before the undead come knocking.
This book, quite simply, is an enormous amount of fun. You know how the story is supposed to go, and you happily anticipate the chaos of the zombie apocalypse to come. And let’s face it, who hasn’t wanted some version of Blanche Ingram to get eaten by a horde of mindless undead?

If you enjoyed Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (and I will confess that I enjoyed this book more), or like a whiff of rotting flesh with your classic literature, this is an incredibly entertaining read. I’m waiting on tenterhooks to see how the story plays out in the next book!

A copy of this book was provided by the author in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Bird Box by Josh Malerman

Bird Box by Josh Malerman

It started with strange news reports out of Russia, stories of people seeing … something and going mad, performing grotesque acts of violence on themselves and others. Then the incidents are reported in Alaska, whatever it is seems to be moving slowly westward, and no one seems to know what it is. Five years later, and the world may as well be empty. Malorie has been living in isolation with her two young children. The only rule: don’t look outside. The children have never been outside their sealed-off house without blindfolds. But now, they have to leave, and their best chance for safe refuge lies twenty miles away, down the river. Calorie will have to row the distance blindfolded, with another but her and her children’s senses to guide her. But as they set out, it soon becomes clear that something is stalking them.

This was my first read of 2018, and my god, it scared the crap out of me! The book is told entirely from Malorie’s point of view, and since she cannot look at what is happening without going mad, neither can we. Malerman forces the reader to go through the book blinded, relying on the information Malorie is able to glean using her other senses. The tension in this book is thick enough to cut with a knife. Even in story form, the lack of visual data is terrifying.

The story moves back and forth between when the incidents are just beginning, and five years later when Malorie is making her journey downriver towards (what she hopes is) safety. Malerman let’s the tension build slowly, and keeps the reader in a state of near panic for most of the book. I read Bird Box in one sitting because I literally could not stop reading. Malerman is clearly a master of the horror genre, I can’t wait to read his other books.

Book Review: Widow’s Point by Richard Chizmar and Billy Chizmar

Widow’s Point by Richard Chizmar and Billy Chizmar

On an isolated stretch of the Nova Scotia coast, the Widow’s Point lighthouse stands alone against the cliffs and the ocean. The local townsfolk look on the lighthouse with suspicion bordering on superstitious dread–there has always been an air of tragedy and death about the place. The increasing body found over the decades does nothing to help the lighthouse’s reputation.

Enter Thomas Livingston, best-selling author and ghost hunter, who is determined to spend a weekend locked inside Widow’s Point with a video camera and a tape recorder, hoping to strike supernatural gold for his next book. What he finds inside the lighthouse is something utterly malign and alien, something awake and hungry.

This is a haunted house tale along the lines of Stephen King’s early work. Imagine The Shining takig place not in an expansive, snowed in hotel, but within the twisted confines of a century old lighthouse. The story is told as a transcript, the video and audio recordings made by Livingston having been recovered by another party. Most of the story is relayed to us via transcripts of Livingston’ s audio files, allowing the reader’s imagination to provide the bulk of the horror.

This is a great read, and a truly creepy story. Chizmar has already proved himself to be a credit to the genre with Gwendy’s Button Box, and Widow’s Point does not disappoint.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Paperbacks from Hell by Grady Hendrix

Paperbacks from Hell: A History of Horror Fiction from the ’70s and ’80s by Grady Hendrix

I remember walking into a used bookstore or into my local library book sale as a teenager and heading straight for the most lurid, monstrous, kitschy horror titles I could find. I cut my teeth on 666 and The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson. I read and reread Swan Song and Stinger by Robert McCammon. Cult horror was an important part of my childhood (started off by writers like R.L. Stine, Lois Duncan, and Christopher Pike). How could I resist revisiting something so fun?

Grady Hendrix clearly loves the topic. He revisits cult favorites and forgotten (some rightfully so) tales. In chapters broken down by existential threat (evil children, murderous animals, demons, haunted houses, D&D, etc), he brings the best and the worst of cult horror novels into the light of day. I especially enjoy the attention he gives to the cover artists of these books. Often the unknown and unsung heroes of the genre, these frequently anonymous artists created some absolutely stunning artwork to accompany some truly weird books.

Unfortunately, my TBR may never be the same. There were so many books included in this that I had never heard of but now absolutely have to read. Fortunately, a suggested reading list graces the back of the book, allowing you to ease into the world of cult horror. And ease I probably should. It’s been a while since I went to the forgotten paperbacks section of my local used bookstore. I’m rather looking forward to rifling through the titles, hoping to find a gem with a macabre and melodramatic cover, just waiting to be rediscovered.

Book Review: The Elementals by Michael McDowell

the elementals.jpg

The Elementals by Michael McDowell

I have to shout a thank you out to the folks at The Nocturnal Reader’s Box, and of course Grady Hendrix and Paperbacks from Hell for introducing me to this author. Nocturnal Reader’s had to post a picture of the very pretty book you see above, and then after reading the blurb, I simply had to read it. Hearing Hendrix sing McDowell’s praises in Paperbacks from Hell cemented my decision.

This book features two wealthy Mobile, Alabama families, the McCrays and the Savages. The two families have been friends for years, and the McCray daughter is married to the surviving Savage son. But the Savages are an old and strange family, and after the traumatic funeral of the Savage matriarch, the two families descend on their shared vacation spot: Beldame. Beldame consists of three identical old Victorian houses on a spit of sand in the Gulf of Mexico. One house traditionally occupied by the McCrays, another by the Savages, and one that is slowly being consumed by the sand dunes. But as the days drag by, it becomes more and more obvious that the abandoned house isn’t so empty. Something is occupying the crumbling building, something evil, something hungry . . .

This is easily one of the best horror books I’ve read in a long time. My biggest regret is that I didn’t read any of McDowell’s books years ago (The Elementals was originally published in 1981). I am very glad that McDowell’s book are starting to garner fresh attention, both through Paperbacks from Hell and Valancourt Books’ gorgeous paperback editions.

The Elementals is delightfully scary without needless gore. I’m not some wilting flower, but I have to say that the recent popularity of “torture porn” style horror simply made the genre gross and not very much fun. There were a couple of places in this book where I was so utterly creeped out that I found myself holding the book as far away as possible, because it was freaking scary but I still needed to find out what happened. This is the reading equivalent of watching a scary movie through your fingers, and it totally works.

Horror buffs who’ve not read McDowell’s books should start now. Right now. McDowell is an incredibly talented writer  who chose to use his gifts for cult horror books, and I think we should all be grateful. Expect a review of Cold Moon Over Babylon, also by McDowell (and one of the books in October’s Nocturnal Reader’s Box), in the near future.

 

Book Box Review and Unboxing: The Nocturnal Reader’s Box – November

It’s gray and dreary here in November, the perfect time to find a package on your doorstep that promises oodles of goodies. Let’s dig in, shall we?

The books this month are two new releases. 

The first is The Wilderness Within by John Claude Smith, which sounds like a delightfully trippy tale of madness. Here’s the Goodreads description:

The forest is alive.

While visiting fellow writer, Frank Harlan Marshall, Derek Gray senses a palpable dread within Frank’s house and the forest that surrounds it; a subtle, malignant sentience. What should be a joyous event, as they await the surprise arrival of a long-lost friend, comedian “Dizzy Izzy” Haberstein, is fraught with unease Derek does not understand.

Derek’s confusion is upended by the chance meeting with musician Alethea, formerly of Dark Angel Asylum, a band that dropped out of sight once the leader, Aleister Blut, ended up in an insane asylum. As their relationship blossoms, Derek’s disorientation at the hands of the forest manifests as his world turns sideways…and one of Frank’s fictional creations–a murderous monster named Average Joe–gains foothold in the surreal, psychological terrain.
As the worlds of reality and fantasy meld, what transpires bounds from deeply profound to pure madness.

This promises to be an interesting read.

Next up is a collection of short stories by Ronald Malfi titled We Should Have Left Well Enough Alone.  From the Goodreads description: 

A new mother is pursued by mysterious men in black. A misguided youth learns the dark secrets of the world from an elderly neighbor on Halloween night. A housewarming party where the guests never leave. A caretaker tends to his rusted relic of a god deep in the desert… 

In his debut short story collection, Bram Stoker Award finalist Ronald Malfi mines the depths and depravities of the human condition, exploring the dark underside of religion, marriage, love, fear, regret, and hunger in a world that spins just slightly askew on its axis. Rich in atmosphere and character, Malfi’s debut collection is not to be missed.

I have been assured that I do NOT want to read this book at night!

And now, onto the goodies, those delightful little extras that are always so on the mark. This month continues Nocturnal Reader’s winning streak.

Per usual  the box included a bookmark and a pin. This month’s pin is a sliding bucket of blood ready to dump all over poor Carrie. 

This month’s art print features Butterball the Cenobite from Clive Harper’s Hellraiser series.

A Nocturnal Reader’s-themed pennant added some gray-scale whimsy to the box (and is now proudly gracing the wall in my reading room).

The remaining goodies were perfect for the colder, rainy (and possibly snowy) November days ahead

Included this month was this fantastic Shirley Jackson pillow case, which promptly swallowed one of my more abused throw pillows.

There was also apple strudel flavored coffee from The Coffee Shop of Horrors (LOVE their coffee), perfect for a cold morning

And this incredibly cozy Nights Watch hat (from GoT) that actually fits over my oversized head (yay!)

So a wonderful collection of stuffs his month. I have to say (as I have many times before) that the Nocturnal Reader’s Box has been one of the most consistently wonderful subscription boxes I’ve encountered. Visit them at their website to subscribe!